Even a powerful tugboat struggles when pushing a ship.
I can hear the old adage, “Life is a struggle.” And from one point of view, it is true. We live in a world where “survival of the fittest” shapes our lives. And it is easy to conclude that life really is a struggle.
What does it mean to struggle?
For me, struggling means fighting a tough battle, trying to overcome some force that is as strong or stronger than I am. It means, not knowing how to succeed but pushing on. It involves effort, often futile effort. The feeling is often one of eroding hope and can include thoughts of giving up.
Being in business for myself for many years, I have often felt that I was struggling. I had no training in business. I had conflicting desires about making money. But I always had a good work ethic and a desire to serve. In fact, I’ve always wanted to do the best job I could at every job I’ve ever worked at.
Being in business, even for the well-prepared, can feel like a struggle, let alone for me. The sheer quantity of things that need to be done is overwhelming. And, of course, I want to do them all well. But that’s not enough, I also need to make a profit. That is a tall order indeed for someone who was not business-minded to begin with.
How the heck do you balance all those factors? How do you make it all work? Answering those questions has been a process of a lifetime for me. And when I get tired and overwhelmed, or when I see my efforts making little effect, it does feel like a struggle. The weight of the job feels heavy in those moments and I sometimes think, “What’s the use?”
To fight hard in a battle that I may not win is not the definition of “struggle” for me. To struggle is an internal experience more than anything. When I’m in good spirits, I see the daunting task of running a business only as a challenge I’m willing to face. But when I’m in poor spirits, it feels like a struggle.
The heaviest part is the feeling that it won’t succeed. What that would mean about me? It would mean somehow on an emotional level that I’m a failure. It becomes a struggle to maintain the identity of “not being a failure” at all costs. It’s personal.
This is why I sometimes continue to struggle on when others who are saner might have quit a long time ago. I have an attachment to a vision of what I’d like to do. Lofty goals can lead to struggle, right?
Lofty goals alone are not enough to give the experience of struggling. There must also be an urgency, a need—an attachment—there in order for the experience of struggle to come up. Without it, it is just a very challenging job. I welcome challenges. I like them actually. I love to do big things. I like to do things I’ve never done before. I like to learn.
But the moment the attachment comes back in and I think, “I need to get this done as soon as possible,” the whole thing becomes a struggle. Impatience replaces a love of learning. And energy feels like a limited resource. I have to get there before I run out of energy. That’s the feeling of a struggle.
The reason I struggle, when I do, is simply because I’m overly attached to getting where I want to go. I’m attached to winning. It feels heavy because I don’t know how, or even if, I’ll win.
There are two ways to stop the struggle. One, of course, is to let go of big dreams. There can be wisdom in this and sometimes it is the wisest course of action. But a second way to stop the struggle is to simply loosen the attachment to the outcome.
If I can dream big, yet hold my desire to succeed more loosely, the sense of struggle falls away. The pushing and yearning lessen and a calmer mind emerges. Suddenly, I can see my business from a broader perspective. I can see the areas where my approach is weakest and I can calmly seek new ways to approach the problem. In short, I become more rational.
My favorite way to play with attachment and to find a looser hold on the ideas I’m enslaved to is The Work of Byron Katie. This simple approach of asking four questions and exploring opposites opens my mind even in the face of my most dearly held attachments.
For example, in my business I can easily question these thoughts:
I need to increase my income.
I want to have 300 people in Inquiry Circle.
I need a more user-friendly software app for Inquiry Circle.
I want to design more courses.
These are dreams. And when I question my dreams, I’m careful not to trash them. Dreams are wonderful ideas. They are desires worthy of pursuing in my opinion. They are expressions of myself. But too much attachment even to good dreams can turn life into a struggle.
When I question, “I want to have 300 people in Inquiry Circle,” and really take my time with the inquiry, I find some wiggle room there. Having forty-five people in this amazing group is great. Let me enjoy this group size before it grows. And if I still want it to grow, which I do, let me think rationally about how to get there without any desperation about it.
That’s what doing The Work does for me. It takes the urgency and desperation out. It removes any hint of a whining tone from my inner voice. And with that gone, or lessened, huge jobs don’t feel so much like a struggle to me. I have the energy to take the next step.
In addition to attachments, other thoughts that cause the feeling of struggle are the thoughts that it’s too much for me. I’m too weak, too inept, to pursue my dreams. These thoughts make a difficult situation seem impossible. But these thoughts too can be questioned. For example:
I don’t have a business mind.
I don’t have time to organize my business well.
It’s selfish to focus on earning money.
Just questioning a few of these limiting beliefs can open up new ways of seeing any pursuit. For me, questioning, “I don’t have a business mind,” is extremely refreshing and humbling. I do like to “play shop” and I have since I was a kid. It’s only the story that it’s not spiritual that makes me think I shouldn’t.
So I like to question both sides of my experience of struggle: my attachment to my end goal and my limiting beliefs. Each reduces the stress in its own way and leaves my mind freer to use its creativity and intelligence to solve difficult problems.
Do you struggle in a relationship? With money? With your health? Or do you struggle in trying to make friends, or doing well in school? Stress will show you honestly where your struggle lies. If you listen, and question both your attachments and your limiting beliefs, you may find yourself doing impossible things without a feeling of struggle.
“And once you have inquiry, you can be as ambitious as you want in your job, you can shoot for the moon, because you can no longer fail. You realize that the worst that can happen is a concept.” Byron Katie, Question Your Thinking, Change The World
Further Reading: A New Definition of Completed